The Forgotten War  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2006

The Forgotten War   

With a few stellar exceptions, the U.S. media have largely ignored the fighting in Afghanistan. Here’s why that’s a serious mistake.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


After putting the finishing touches on a report for the New York Times on February 7, Carlotta Gall was on her way to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan to interview Taliban prisoners. Violence was escalating in the province, once the haunt of Osama bin Laden, and the veteran war correspondent was attempting to pinpoint the scope of the rebellion. The driver maneuvered past the checkpoint at the heavily fortified police headquarters and dropped her off in front of a main building.

Seconds later, a massive explosion shook the earth, spraying glass, twisted steel and human flesh in the entranceway Gall had just passed through. As others ducked for cover, she rushed into the street and began recording the sounds and sights of terror. A suicide bomber had left 13 dead and 13 wounded.

The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the carnage, a sign of the group's bold resurgence in this lawless region of the country. The suicide bombing, a terrorist tactic that had not been common in Afghanistan, was an indication that Afghan militants were adopting the tactics of Iraqi insurgents. The attacker struck in Kandahar, the birthplace of the ruthless Taliban regime. The adrenaline was flowing as Gall contacted the foreign desk.

"What amazed me even more [than the explosion] was that editors weren't the least bit interested in the story, so I didn't write about it, even though I was right there," Gall says. "I could have written about the police chief who lost five men that day and the human cost of what is going on here. Maybe I should have pushed harder... It was more than blood and gore."

Despite the snub on the bombing story, the reporter wasn't complaining too loudly. On February 7, her editors were preoccupied with global violence over Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad, including three deaths in Afghanistan that Gall had reported on. The Times wrapped news of the Kandahar suicide bombing into that story.

Gall knows she's in an enviable position: A deadly force has roared back to life in the remote, ancient land that has been her beat for the past five years. Most of that time, she's had little competition. Afghanistan is a story of international importance, but only a handful of reporters had been covering it, even as Taliban fighters began staging a bloody comeback, attacking coalition bases, burning schools, terrorizing villagers over the past 12 months.

This spring, seemingly out of the blue, the story's profile grew dramatically as more news organizations took notice of the collapsing security and signs that Afghan insurgents were following the lead of the Iraqi resistance, carrying out deadly suicide attacks and roadside bombings. By July, the largest military offensive by coalition forces since the Taliban-led government was ousted in late 2001 was under way and Afghanistan had inched its way back into the headlines.

The New York Times is one of the few media organizations to maintain a constant presence in Afghanistan since the launch of "Operation Enduring Freedom" in October 2001. Back then, journalists swarmed by the dozens into one of the world's harshest landscapes, battling scorpions, blistering sandstorms and sword-wielding bandits to report on the new front in the war against terrorism (see "Assignment: Afghanistan").

Over the next year, the hottest story around began to cool, and correspondents turned their attention from Central Asia to the Middle East, where a major conflagration was brewing (see "Whatever Happened to Afghanistan?"). "Iraq was the next big war, and everybody simply left," Gall says.

At first, the press' pullback from Afghanistan was not so noticeable. After a rout at the hands of Allied forces, Taliban and al Qaeda operatives fled to Pakistan or skulked back to caves in the bleak mountains. For several years, Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest and least developed countries, experienced a sense of relative calm as a pro-Western government fell into place and foreign aid poured in. Battles against militant holdouts were fought mostly out of sight, in far-flung, inaccessible locales or by air. Few journalists paid attention to the gathering storm in Afghanistan.

Carlotta Gall rattles off the names of the most faithful news outlets (besides her own paper) – the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, British Broadcasting Corp. and the Washington Post. The AP, with a staff of 10, has become a mainstay for providing breaking news out of Afghanistan for a worldwide audience.

Others hang back and monitor from their regional listening posts. The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Time and Newsweek are among those that have provided coverage from bureaus located in hubs like Islamabad or New Delhi. Many keep a local stringer in Kabul with correspondents dropping in and out for breaking news or special reports.

For news managers, it has become a matter of priorities. "Iraq is a daily story. Afghanistan is periodic," says Loren Jenkins, National Public Radio's senior foreign editor. "I try my best to get a staff reporter in at least every six weeks. I would love to have someone in Afghanistan permanently, but I just can't do it," he says, citing his Iraq expenses. What happens when news breaks and no NPR correspondents are within striking distance of Kabul? "We turn to Carlotta Gall, who always is there."

Some media critics have labeled Afghanistan the "forgotten war" and worry about the consequences of the underreporting, of a nation caught unprepared for the dangers in such a volatile place. Television news, with the potential to reach many millions, has been shamefully inadequate. Print fares better but leaves a lot to be desired, given the importance of the subject.

Stories filed from the region paint a troubling picture of a nation reverting to lawlessness, with Islamic extremists getting a powerful second wind. Their tentacles extend into two other hotspots, Iran and Pakistan. Iran already is a major transit route for Afghanistan's multibillion-dollar drug trade, and U.S. intelligence has received indications that Tehran is supplying weapons and money to insurgents there. It is well known that tribal areas in Pakistan provide refuge to al Qaeda operatives, the Taliban and, perhaps, even Osama bin Laden.

And while saturation coverage from Iraq has sparked a boisterous national debate, news organizations – with a few stellar exceptions – have left Americans with an information void.

"It seems to me that the message getting out is very much the party line: 'Afghanistan is a success story. What we did worked and is working still,'" Jean MacKenzie, country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan, wrote in an e-mail interview in April. "There seems to be less of an emphasis on the very serious problems in the country and almost no assessment of the prospects for long-term stability should the West's commitment to Afghanistan dwindle before the job is done."

The revolving-door coverage NPR's Jenkins describes has become the modus operandi for many editors who keep Afghanistan on their radar. USA Today Foreign Editor Jim Cox defines the paper's approach to the country with a single word: "selective." He periodically taps Paul Wiseman, stationed in Hong Kong, for Afghan duty. "We try to identify times when there are special stories he can go after and accomplish," Cox says. Kim Barker, South Asia correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, makes a trip once every two to four months as part of her beat that includes Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. ABC News correspondent Gretchen Peters flies from Islamabad when her bosses want a story.

Tim McGirk of Time magazine covered Afghanistan from Islamabad until August. He tried to make it to Kabul every couple of months. Romesh Ratnesar, Time's world editor, says he would consider it a luxury to have someone there full time. "I would love to be able do more, but it is just not practical for us right now," he says. "We have to balance the fact that there is significantly more action and more American troops in Iraq, so that's where we have poured a lot of our resources."

Ratnesar's comment strikes at the heart of why Afghanistan remains on the back burner for the overwhelming majority of U.S. news organizations. News managers say they don't consider events in the volatile Central Asian nation unimportant, and there clearly is concern over seeing a vital frontline in the global war against terrorism go undercovered. But editors also must grapple with thinning foreign news budgets, overstretched staffs assigned to cover vast swaths of territory and an obsession with Iraq, where failure could be catastrophic for America's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Escalating danger and logistics also are deterrents. In July 2002, it took Gall three days to drive from Kabul to the site of a wedding party in the province of Uruzgan in southern Afghanistan that had been bombed by an American gunship. Today, she says, it would be impossible to attempt that trip due to a rise in banditry, kidnapping and assassinations.

None of the three newsweeklies has featured Afghanistan on the cover in the past year. The closest was a Newsweek cover story on December 12, 2005, on "Women of Al Qaeda," a global look at the increasing role of women as weapons of holy war. Time's last cover on the subject was on March 8, 2004, one that featured "Afghanistan: The Other War." U.S. News & World Report's last cover referring to Afghanistan, "The Hunt for Bin Laden," appeared on May 10, 2004.

Newsweek Foreign Editor Jeff Bartholet says he has held back from doing a cover story because the situation in Afghanistan is extremely complicated, and the sense of what is transpiring undulates wildly. "About a year ago, people were telling me we should do a cover about Afghanistan as a success story. A year later, people are saying Afghanistan is going to hell in a handbasket," Bartholet says. "If you're sitting where I'm sitting, you are reluctant to make those broad, sweeping judgments. A cover has to be big, bold and surprising. Tell me, what would the cover story on Afghanistan be?"

Terry Atlas, foreign editor for U.S. News, said in April, "The short answer, we haven't done anything in Afghanistan for quite a while now. Afghanistan is on my personal radar screen, but between resources and priorities, we don't have anything in the works." In June, Atlas said the magazine had added a freelancer in Afghanistan and was anticipating coverage soon.

As for newspapers, a scan of LexisNexis shows that many of their stories on Afghanistan come from wire services and usually do not run much longer than 500 words. The majority provide little perspective or context about a region that maintains a dark-age tribal structure and is the world's largest producer of opium poppies. And until May, when Afghanistan was rocked by some of the deadliest violence since the 2001 invasion, few stories appeared on the front page.

Vietnam was described as the first "television war." There's little danger that phrase will be applied to the fighting in Afghanistan.

During 2005, the three network nightly newscasts aired a total of 147 minutes on Afghanistan, according to the Tyndall Report, which tracks such numbers. Only 13 minutes were devoted to the hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. In 2001, the year of the invasion, the total on Afghanistan was 1,288 minutes.

Airtime increased during the first five months of 2006, due in part to high-profile events such as President Bush's surprise visit in early March and the controversy over a Muslim-turned-Christian who was threatened with execution. The nightly news devoted 134 minutes to Afghanistan from January through May.

On cable, Fox, MSNBC and CNN did not provide significant coverage until the violence escalated in May. And Afghanistan has been the focus of high-profile programs like ABC's "Nightline" and CBS' "60 Minutes" only a few times over the past 18 months. As of mid July, "Nightline" had aired no special programs on Afghanistan in 2006. On March 2, 2005, the show aired a segment on a child in Kabul in need of heart surgery. On September 19, the program focused on the struggle for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

"60 Minutes" performed little better. On March 5, it aired a story about a soldier convicted of killing two Afghan prisoners. The most significant reporting came in an October 16, 2005, piece on the heroin trade in Afghanistan. CNN scored a coup of sorts on February 28, when American cameraman Ed Caraballo called from inside an Afghan prison during a riot to talk with Anderson Cooper, whom he had worked with. Caraballo was convicted, along with two others, for running a private prison in Afghanistan.

Paul Slavin, who is in charge of ABC's worldwide newsgathering operation, says the network continues to be interested in Afghanistan but not to the extent that it needs a full-time correspondent there. "I'm not arguing that Afghanistan is not an important story. It's really a question ultimately of priorities," says Slavin, who has a large crew in Baghdad. He opts for a home base in neighboring Pakistan, a country he views as more important to the region. When the case of Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert who was threatened with death, broke, ABC's Gretchen Peters flew to Kabul to report on the clandestine world of Afghan Christians.

John Stack, vice president of newsgathering at Fox News Channel, agrees that it's a matter of making choices. "The story selection process is a very difficult science..you really can't be everywhere," says Stack. As for Afghanistan, he says, Fox presents reports from the Pentagon coupled with illustrations from news agencies such as the AP and Reuters.

CBS declined to comment for this story; NBC and CNN executives did not respond to requests for interviews.

Given that Afghanistan remains a linchpin in America's campaign against terror and that Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar remain free and are believed to be operating in the region, shouldn't the situation receive more comprehensive coverage, regardless of the understandable preoccupation with Iraq? Will there be a price to pay for this oversight, especially if the fragile democracy backslides toward disaster, as reports of beheadings, bombings and assassinations indicate?

Steve Coll, a staff writer for The New Yorker, believes there could well be. Coll spent time in Afghanistan doing research for his 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Ghost Wars," an exhaustive investigation of the secret history of the CIA's role in Afghanistan and a historical account of the origins of al Qaeda. He faults media companies for continuing to rein in foreign news coverage, especially in strategic locations like Afghanistan. The pullback could be dangerous to the American public's discourse on foreign policy, says Coll, a former Washington Post managing editor.

"When you break down the business models that can support long-term foreign coverage, editors no longer can afford to send people to Afghanistan to stay long enough to develop expertise and be valuable," Coll says. "It's not the kind of story you go over and do blogs on. You have to sit still and develop real engagement..and that costs money."

He wonders how many Americans are aware that this has been a bad year in Afghanistan. The media, he says, should be fueling the national discussion by addressing such questions as: What are we doing right and what are we doing wrong? Are we tackling the right problems and in the right order? Why is the Taliban coming back to life? What is the structure of the insurgency? Where does it get its weapons and find safe haven?

Most American newspapers have simply abdicated, leaving coverage to a precious few, says Mark Seibel, who was Knight Ridder's managing editor for international news. He sees the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and, to a lesser extent, the Chicago Tribune carrying the heaviest load. "At a time that America is fighting a war and the world is concerned about nuclear weapons in Iran, it is foolish" to be pulling back, Seibel says. Knight Ridder, which sold its papers and went out of business in June, had a strong presence in Iraq but provided only intermittent coverage of Afghanistan.

John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project, also sees adverse consequences stemming from sparse coverage. "This is a hugely important story that we are ignoring at our own peril," says the former Baltimore Sun Beijing and New Delhi bureau chief. "When we're not given a good accounting of what is going on, it could lead to missteps in foreign policy, other misadventures and mistakes."

While overall media performance has been disappointingly spartan and episodic, a few journalists have distinguished themselves with breaking news coverage and in-depth reporting. By far, the New York Times' Carlotta Gall is the correspondent most often singled out for the quality of her work and her constant presence. The Washington Post's Pamela Constable is also widely praised.

Those two papers are considered the best when it comes to consistent, thorough coverage. The Times has had a strong tradition of reporting out of Afghanistan. Its chief foreign correspondent, John F. Burns, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his coverage of the harrowing regime imposed by the Taliban. The Times' Barry Bearak won a Pulitzer in 2002 for stories on daily life in the war-torn country. "Honestly, we never thought for a moment of pulling back," says Foreign Editor Susan Chira. "We had a very strong operational base set up there even before the war."

The New Yorker's Coll describes Gall as a prime example of a classic foreign correspondent. "She has been there continuously for five years. She is an expert," he says. "She understands the place so well now that when news arises, her instincts are very sound. And she is intrepid."

The Chicago Tribune's Kim Barker, who reports from the region, says she has "incredible respect" for Constable and Gall.

In fact, the name Carlotta Gall has practically become synonymous with Assignment Afghanistan. Asked about Time magazine's coverage of the country, World Editor Ratnesar used her as a benchmark, replying, "We don't have someone like Carlotta Gall living in Kabul."

Gall, 44, covered the war in Chechnya for the Moscow Times and reported on the fighting in the former Yugoslavia for the New York Times, where she worked as a stringer (and was known to some as "the Christiane Amanpour of print"). When America invaded Afghanistan after September 11, the newspaper sent her to be a full-time stringer in Kabul, in part because it was familiar territory: She had visited the country several times in the 1990s when her father reported from there for Independent Television News based in Great Britain.

Over the past year, Gall has written a string of stories about the rebirth of the Taliban and its intimidation of the populace. In a page-one piece on May 3, she quoted a shopkeeper who told an American commander, "The Taliban and al Qaeda are everywhere." She sees the militants, emboldened by the announcement of a U.S. military pullout in the south, moving into a new, vicious phase.

Gall, who was born in England, calls herself a calm person, one who doesn't rattle easily – and one who would rather travel on her own than with the pack. Her closest brush with death in Afghanistan came on February 7, when the suicide bomber blew himself up in Kandahar. "It's the kind of thing where later you think, 'Wow, if we had been a minute or two later going through that gate, it could have been us,' " she said by telephone late one night from Kabul.

Why has she stayed with the story so long? "Afghanistan is important because this is where 9/11 came from, and the characters who did that are still at large." Other factors: She loves the place. And since she has followed the situation closely since the 1980s, she wants to see how it plays out. Gall also is fascinated by the fact that Osama bin Laden is still at large. "His fight against the West has become a global movement that has a long way to run and will define the future of Islam and its relations with the West," she says. "Iraq is the sideshow in that struggle. It may be spawning more recruits now to al Qaeda, but the foundation is here and the ideologues are here."

Roy Gutman, Newsday's foreign editor, is writing a book about how the press missed the rise of al Qaeda and the terrorist network in Afghanistan during the 1990s. He faults the media for failing to chronicle the ascension of the Taliban and the impact of their takeover, which created a refuge for terrorists.

There's a major lesson to be learned from that tragic episode, Gutman says. "It is that South Asia matters to our security and to the security of the wider region. We damn well better keep close watch on it because we will be affected by what happens there. The media can't be episodic... It ought to be the watchdog. Instead, it is all Iraq all the time."

Today, says Gutman, a small group of correspondents is keeping journalistic history from repeating itself. While the press presence is minuscule, the quality and depth of the reporting by those who are there will make it hard for decision makers to argue that they didn't know what was transpiring.

"It's our job to sound the alarm when we see things going off the rails," says Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for documenting the existence of Serbian concentration camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "To some extent we are doing it this time around."

Often the stories carry a hint of déjà vu, harking back to the disaster of the mid-'90s. In early January, the AP filed a report about the beheading of a teacher by the Taliban. His crime: allowing girls into his school. Since the spring thaw, correspondents have provided a steady stream of stories about how Taliban guerrillas have retaken swaths of territory in the south, attacked army posts, clashed with coalition forces and burned schools.

Author Sebastian Junger produced a detailed account of Taliban tactics and the American military's efforts to thwart them in the April 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. He wrote about a man whom the Taliban skinned alive and left in a field to die; of another man forced to watch as his wife was gang-raped in front of him, his eyes then stabbed out so it would be the last thing he ever saw. Instead of fighting pitched battles, Taliban operatives had adopted a strategy of "civil terror," leaving "night letters" in mosques that threaten villagers with execution if they continue to work for the government or foreigners.

Junger wrote a sobering summary: "American military deaths in the past year – nearly 100 – almost equal those for the three preceding years combined. According to a recent internal report for the American Special Forces, opium production has gone from 74 metric tons a year under the Taliban to an astronomical 3,600 metric tons, an amount which is equal to 90 percent of the world's supply. The profit from Afghanistan's drug trade, roughly $2 billion a year, competes with the amount of international aid flowing into the country and helps fund the insurgency."

The author of "The Perfect Storm" believes it will spell disaster if U.S. troops and aid are withdrawn prematurely. "Afghanistan would collapse back in on itself, and it would go very fast," he said in an interview. "Kandahar would fall immediately [to the Taliban], warlords would impose their will..a replay of all the things that brought us 9/11."

Also alarming are the apparent ties between Iran and Afghanistan. Paul Watson, South Asia bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, filed a cluster of stories about the existence of stolen computer hard drives containing classified U.S. military assessments of enemy targets, names of corrupt Afghan officials and descriptions of American defenses, on sale at an Afghan bazaar. Some of the material indicated that the U.S. military had received unsubstantiated intelligence reports that insurgents in Afghanistan are getting money and weapons from Iran.

"The insurgents continue to get stronger and they are extending their reach," Watson wrote in an e-mail interview. "As tensions mount with Iran over its nuclear program, there is growing risk that any conflict could spill over to Afghanistan."

And there's an Iraq connection as well. In a breakthrough piece in the September 26, 2005, issue of Newsweek, the commander of the largest Taliban force in an area 100 miles southwest of Kabul bragged, "I'm explaining to my fighters every day the lessons I learned and my experience in Iraq. I want to copy in Afghanistan the tactics and spirit of the glorious Iraqi resistance." Taliban leaders described how the Afghan conflict was entering a new phase, with a boost from Iraq. The piece carried a sobering caveat: "A crueler setback would be hard to imagine for America and its Afghan allies."

With so much at stake, a stronger commitment to the story by the American news media hardly seems too much to ask.

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